International Journal of Baudrillard Studies
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005) 

Passings: Cool Memories of Susan Sontag: An American Intellectual.

Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Lennoxville, Canada)

Sontag: The question is not whether consciousness or whether knowledge, but the quality of the consciousness and of the knowledge.1

Baudrillard: I personally think there is such a thing as the responsibility of intellectuals, only this responsibility cannot be manifested in the same kind of good faith and determination as before. ...I still feel responsibility at an individual level. ...I don’t think an intellectual can speak for anything or anyone.


Sontag: Baudrillard is a political idiot. Maybe a moral idiot too. …I don’t think I would call him nihilistic, I think he’s ignorant and cynical.3


I. Introduction

            In the summer of 1993, while Sarajevo was under bombardment from Serb forces, the New York based intellectual Susan Sontag returned there to direct a group of local actors in the staging of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Sontag understood her work in Sarajevo as an act of brave solidarity. Baudrillard saw her visit (despite Sontag’s best intentions) as fitting too neatly into the West’s new world order, and more particularly in this case, the new European order. Both knew that a Serbian genocide of Bosnian Muslims was taking place under the watchful eyes of UNPROFOR4 (mainly French) troops. For Baudrillard, Sontag’s act of “solidarity” was part of a new intellectual order which follows closely at the heels of the new world order. Acts of commiseration and of “taking responsibility,” such as Sontag’s are falsified (mediatized) by this new order into acts of complicity. In such actions Baudrillard sees intellectuals trading their distress for the misery of the poor – in “a perverse agreement” where humanitarian gestures are absorbed by the West which has made a pact with the genocide. Intellectuals like Sontag then are (at best) unwittingly playing out the humanitarian side of the equation for the West and providing the window dressing which serves to divert attention. Sontag’s act fails for Baudrillard because it does not (and cannot) create a rupture in such an information continuum.5

            At the time of her death in December 2004 Susan Sontag had been a leading American intellectual for over three decades.6 Yet, aside from hurling insults from a distance, she never came fully to terms with Baudrillard’s understanding of her visits to Sarajevo and the serious point he sought to make (she died over a decade after his critique of her trip in Liberation). The time has come to say goodbye to Susan Sontag, and to assess the disagreement with Baudrillard. Doing so has lead me to examine a larger question which hangs over their agonistic relationship: what is to be learned about the state of the intellectual art in America through an examination of Sontag’s refusal to engage seriously with Baudrillard?

II. Sontag in Real Time

            Sontag’s actions were personally brave in Sarajevo but as she acknowledged (ironically supporting Baudrillard’s claim), against the mediated machinery of Western complicity with the genocide, she found herself powerless to disrupt the information continuum:

The point is of course, that any cultural activity in Sarajevo is a sideshow for the correspondents and journalists who have come to cover a war. …To speak at all of what one is doing seems – perhaps, whatever one’s intentions, becomes – a form of self-promotion. But this is just what the contemporary media culture expects. My political opinions – I would go on about what I regard as the infamous role now being played by UNPROFOR, rallying against ‘the Serb-UN siege of Sarajevo’ – were invariably cut out. You want it to be about them, and it turns out – in media land – to be about you.7


The feeling of a need to do something, says Baudrillard, is precisely the point where intellectuals blunder into the forces at play in the contemporary “mediatized” environment. It is exactly at the moment when Western intellectuals feel “we must do something” that they harbour an illusion of liberty and power which are no longer available:

To do something for the sole reason that one cannot do nothing never has been a valid principle for action, nor for liberty. At the most it is an excuse for one’s powerlessness and a token of self-pity. The people of Sarajevo are not bothered by such questions. Being where they are, they are in the absolute need to do what they do, to do the right thing. They harbour no illusion about the outcome and do not indulge in self-pity. This is what it means to be really existing.  …This is why they are alive, while we are dead.8


            In Baudrillard’s view, the treatment Sontag received from the media illustrates well what can now be expected.9 Sontag’s actions do not represent a radical rupture but they do illustrate an important new tendency: “we live in real time… actions do not have any finality… Sontag’s act is limited… information is not what it used to be”.10 For Baudrillard, to travel to Sarajevo when Sontag did was to participate in the global market for loss and suffering. Sontag may be a “director” when she puts on her play, but in the larger theatre, she is merely a player in a larger game, the darker side of which, are the sinister practices of the West and their relation to the evil transpiring in crumbling Yugoslavia.11

            Baudrillard’s perspective on Sontag’s visits to Sarajevo is part of his understanding that the West reaches an apex of hypocrisy in using the suffering of the poor as a source of Western power. Baudrillard had addressed this problem earlier in his writing:

There can be no finer proof that the distress of the rest of the world is at the root of Western power and that the spectacle of that distress is its crowning glory than the inauguration, on the roof of the Arche de la Defense, with a sumptuous buffet laid on by the Fondation des Droits de l’Homme, of an exhibition of the finest photos of world poverty.12

Sontag comes close to Baudrillard on this point in one of her last books:

So far as we feel sympathy we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not an inappropriate – response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a consideration of how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways that we prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only the initial spark.13


For Baudrillard, it becomes impossible to pose reality, to operate on its behalf, or to speak for anyone other than oneself. As Sontag herself admits in the passage cited above (at endnote 7), her effort to speak truth to power, was consistently filtered out by the media. In Sarajevo, before the cameras and the microphones of the international journalists viewing her “side show”, while they waited for more Sarajevans to be killed by snipers or mortars, Sontag experienced the frustrations of existing in real time: “...nothing takes place in real time. Not even history. History in real time is CNN, instant news, which is the exact opposite of history”.14

III. Citizen of Literature And Patriot to the End

            It is in light of the above that we come to mourn the passing Susan Sontag. The first thing to lament is the disappearance of a gifted writer. I select here two passages from her writings on a subject of interest to a Baudrillardian audience, photography. The first (in which we hear her voice so clearly) is from the introduction she wrote to the 1996 edition of E. J. Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits.

First of all, the pictures are unforgettable – photography’s ultimate standard of value. …We are far, in Bellocq’s company, from the staged sadomasochistic hijinks of the bound women offering themselves up to the male gaze (or worse) in the disturbingly acclaimed photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki or the cooler, more stylish, unvaryingly intelligent lewdness of the images devised by Helmut Newton. The only pictures that do seem salacious – or convey something of the meanness and abjection of a prostitute’s life – are those on which the faces have been scratched out. (In one, the vandal – could it have been Bellocq himself? – missed the face). These pictures are actually painful to look at, at least for this viewer. But then I am a woman and, unlike many men who look at these photographs, find nothing romantic about prostitution.15


And from her foreword to the book: One Hundred Years of Italian Photography:

All of Europe is mourning for its past. Bookstores are stocked with albums of photographs offering up the vanished past for our delectation and reflex nostalgia. But the past has deeper roots in Italy than anywhere else in Europe, which makes its destruction more defining. And the elegiac note was sounded earlier and more plangently in Italy, as was the note of rancour – think of the Futurist tantrums about the past: the calls to burn the museums, fill in the Grand Canal and make it a highway, and so on. Comparable anthologies of photographs of, say, premodern France or Germany do not move in quite this way. The depth possessed by these images of an older Italy is not just the depth of the past. It is the depth of the whole culture, a culture of incomparable dignity and flavour and bulk, that has been thinned out, effaced, confiscated. To be replaced by a culture in which the notion of depth is meaningless.16


            Sontag was, as the second passage makes clear, an unapologetic high modern who maintained the division between high and low culture and would have no truck with the postmodern which she understood as a “pernicious nihilism embodied in the idea of so called cultural democracy; the hatred of excellence, achievement as elitist, exclusionary”.17 If Sontag felt she had a politics, this was it. She described herself as “a citizen of literature …an international citizenship” and she had a preference for European high culture over “what passes in America for a culture… Europe is essential to me, more essential than America…”.18 Nine years later she would write:

Although intellectuals come in all flavours, including the nationalist and the religious, I confess to being partial to the secular, cosmopolitan, anti-tribal variety. The ‘deracinated intellectual’ seems to me an exemplary formula… the free intellectual… committed to exercising the life of the mind.19


            Sontag was a great opponent of the Emerson – Paglia line of American intellectual partisanship and much more a part of the Douglas – Chomsky tradition (each tradition is discussed in next section). Yet, like Gertrude Stein she liked to “take her roots with her” and “never considered herself and ex-patriot” when living outside the USA.20 Sontag never gave up on America but occasionally she goes as far as any American intellectual in the late 20th century to attaining escape velocity from it. This began with her criticism of the American war in Vietnam and the American (mis)understanding of the Cuban revolution, but was never more courageous or pronounced than in her assessment of 9/11 (the week the event took place):

Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a cowardly attack on ‘civilization’ …but an attack on the world’s self proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing bombing of Iraq? And if the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to  those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves… whatever may be said of Tuesday’s [September 11] slaughter, they were not cowards. …Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. …everything is not O.K. …The unanimity of the sanctimonious reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.  …’Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again.  …Who doubts America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.21


By contrast, Baudrillard focussed on the symbolic power of the event in a reversal of traditional critical assumptions and pleas for better leadership:

Only an analysis that emphasizes the logic of symbolic obligation can make sense of this confrontation between the global and the singular. To understand the hatred of the rest of the world against the West, perspectives must be reversed. The hatred of non-Western people is not based on the fact that the West stole everything from them and never gave anything back. Rather, it is based on the fact that they received everything, but were never allowed to give anything back. This hatred is not caused by dispossession or exploitation, but rather by humiliation. And this is precisely the kind of hatred that explains the September 11 terrorist attacks. These were acts of humiliation responding to another humiliation. The worst that can happen to global power is not to be attacked or destroyed, but to suffer a humiliation. Global power was humiliated on September 11 because the terrorists inflicted something the global system cannot give back. Military reprisals were only means of physical response. But, on September 11, global power was symbolically defeated. War is a response to an aggression, but not to a symbolic challenge. A symbolic challenge is accepted and removed when the other is humiliated in return (but this cannot work when the other is crushed by bombs or locked behind bars in Guantanamo). The fundamental rule of symbolic obligation stipulates that the basis of any form of domination is the total absence of any counterpart, of any return.22


            A Chomskean style of patriotism rings through Sontag’s criticism of the response to 9/11. Still, we know voices like hers are all too rare in America – especially at a time of national crisis such as 9/11 when even some leftist American based professors spoke in breathless patriotism of the proliferation of flags after the attack. That said, Sontag, never one for flag waving, endorsed what she referred to as “the quite justified [American] invasion of Afghanistan”23 in late 2001. One wonders how she brokered such feelings given her experiences of the grim realities of war in Sarajevo a decade before? For those who found her support of America’s attack on one of the poorest nations on earth disappointing, solace may be found in the fact that she did not, as far as we know,  plan a journey to Kabul to stage “Bouvard and Pecuchet”.24

IV. Intellectual Patriotism

            In the achieved utopia of contemporary America25, there is precious little dissent and what exists, as Sontag was quick to point out, is of remarkably low quality.26 Sontag described herself as the citizen of a country that reinforces distrust, fear and contempt for intellectuals – the country with the most developed anti-intellectual tradition on the planet.27 There are two long and parallel intellectual traditions in America. The first passes from Frederick Douglas down through Noam Chomsky, what we may call the hopeful (if domesticated) dream of a better America – a truly utopian America that would not merely generate and believe but realize its propaganda. Asked “why do you live in the United States” Chomsky replied:

It’s my country. The U.S. is the freest country in the world. I think there’s more possibility for change here than in any other country I know. It’s a very free society that does a lot of rotten things in the world.28


The tradition which Chomsky represents frequently vilifies America but can, in the end, only be at home there – the intellectual as duty bound to dissidence as an act of definitive patriotism.29 Sontag was ultimately part of this tradition but she pushed at its boundaries better than any other intellectual of her generation. Still as we will see shortly, when it came to advancing a critique of America and the West, in relation to Baudrillard, Sontag’s view like Chomsky’s, suffered staggering limitations.

            A second, more reactionary and protective American intellectual tradition, runs from Emerson through Paglia staking its force on a vehement rejection of outside [read “European”] influences:

Education must be purged of desiccated European formulas, which burden and disable the student mind. We must recover North American paradigms and metaphors, to restore the North American idiom to academic discourse… our young people from brilliant Web entrepreneurs to ingenious private hackers – occupy a radically different mental space than the valley of death of pre and post-war Europe.30


The patriotism of this tradition is deeply chauvinistic. Baudrillard’s thought need not be engaged for it originates in the mind of a European. Chomsky also dabbles in chauvinisms as his biographer Robert Barsky explains, quoting Chomsky: “Although, he [Chomsky] persists, they may boast ‘a few very fine linguists and other scientists, anarchist circles, and a handful of others,’ the French have ‘a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture.’”31

            Despite their differences, both American intellectual traditions share in common a deep-seated love of the idea of America. Chomsky for example operates as a mirror of the institutional alignments he so valiantly hectors. He tirelessly criticizes the President, government law makers, foreign policy elites, and corporate media. The criticism must stop short however, of challenging the idea that America is potentially the best nation on earth – it simply needs repair and better leadership.32 There is precious little difference among leading American intellectuals on both the right and the left on this point: some “thing” is holding America back from greatness – the question concerns precisely what that “thing” is. When you penetrate beneath the rhetoric, the principle difference between the anti-intellectual George W. Bush and the erudite Chomsky (and it is a significant one) is that Bush believes America is at its best when the people who own it also operate it, and Chomsky believes that it can only be at its best when they do not. It is interesting that for both Bush and Chomsky, America is an unfinished project of greatness – the best place to live in this world – whose best is yet to come if only Americans will follow the proper instruction. For both there simply is no better raw material in the political universe with which to work than America. For American intellectuals and anti-intellectuals alike, America was born to lead.

            American intellectuals as diverse as Chomsky and Paglia and non-intellectuals like Bush all have their home, the debate is about the housekeeping. In order to understand the intellectual parochialism of this view, imagine Baudrillard holding aloft the promise of France or Europe’s freedom and potential for change which requires only correcting adjustments, and the difference between “patriotic” and unpatriotic intellectuals becomes evident.33 No nation on earth has produced generations of liberals and conservatives, left and right, who are so loyal.34 If there is a universal characteristic among American intellectuals and politicians this may well be it: the inability to reach escape velocity from the idea of America as the predestined moral leader and giver of freedom to planet earth.35 Pity all those other inconsequential people like the Belgians and Canadians!36

            In a climate where Baudrillardian challenge, Kristeva’s revolt, or even Foucault’s thought on the carceral, are taken seriously by so few, the Chomskys and Paglias of the American intellectual scene exert powerful gravitational  forces.37 What results is largely a mainstream intellectual climate traversed only by the remarkably narrow chasm between right and left that seems to bother few, to her immense credit, as much as it did Sontag. Yet as we will see, even Sontag displayed a reactionary style when it came to things she declared “postmodern” (a category in her view, which included Baudrillard).

V. Sontag Contra Baudrillard: “Nothing to be done”?38

            In her reply to a La Règle du Jeu survey on intellectuals Sontag refers to Gide, Orwell, Bobbio, Sakharov, and Michnick as the kind of intellectuals who responsibly take sides and put themselves on the line for what they believe in.39 She also feels there are other intellectuals “taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on”. In this insalubrious group she places Romain Rolland, Peter Handke, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Jean Baudrillard.40  In making sense of the lack of a detailed reply to Baudrillard by Sontag we may acknowledge that The Economist gets it right when they say: “It is hard to be an intellectual in the United States” but they also get it quite wrong when they declare: “Sontag therefore achieved the near impossible: she was a European style intellectual in America”.41  By examining the debate over Sarajevo closely, we will understand why.

            I do not doubt Sontag’s sincerity (nor did Baudrillard) in making her trip to Sarajevo to put on Waiting for Godot. In her own account of the trip (1993) she says “there was nothing odd or gloomy” in the choice of Beckett’s play.42 She says she was expressing solidarity with the city which she admits was understood by the local press to mean “the world does care”.43 For Sontag, her mission was to bring culture to the besieged city. For Sontag culture meant: “serious culture… an expression of human dignity – which is what the people of Sarajevo feel they have lost”.44 If Sontag took any illusions about the media to Sarajevo, they did not survive:

This is the first genocide in our century to be tracked by the world press and documented on TV.  …Until the Bosnian genocide one might have thought… that if the story could be gotten out, the world would do something. The coverage of the genocide in Bosnia has ended that illusion.45


Sontag also held no illusions about Europe, despite her fondness for its high culture: “Europe is and always has been as much a place of barbarism as a place of civilization”.46 Sontag’s trip to Sarajevo earned her the title intellectual “risk taker” in a very real sense.47 While the play was staged the city was increasingly under siege as the Serbs bettered their position. Sontag and her cast were playing waiting for Godot while everyone waited for Clinton.

            When he learned of Sontag’s trip to Sarajevo, Baudrillard took it as another in the long line of Westerners to appear in Sarajevo seeking “to make good for our loss of strength and sense of reality” (“…they are strong. It is us who are weak”.48) Baudrillard’s original target in his piece in Liberation was a television program which aired simultaneously on France’s ARTE channel (Strasbourg) and Sarajevo television on December 19, 1993: “Le Couloir pour la parole” (a corridor for free speech). Baudrillard says he found the people of Sarajevo extraordinarily superior to the Strasbourgeois despite the misery, distress and total delusion they had faced. For all of this, their reality was superior to that of the people of Strasbourg who heaped pity on the Sarajevans during the televised exchange. Baudrillard saw in the people of Sarajevo not a people in need of compassion but rather, a people to make “us take pity in our dejected condition.” Like the people of Strasbourg whom Baudrillard says were treated with contempt by the Sarajevans in the two-way television feed, Sontag’s journey could be read as a condescending gesture. Sontag may have understood herself to be the target of Baudrillard’s article in Liberation but for him she was merely an example:

Susan Sontag herself is not the issue. She is merely a societal instance of what has become the general situation whereby toothless intellectuals swap their distress with the misery of the poor, both of them sustaining each other, both of them locked into a perverse agreement. This parallels the way the political class and civil society are swapping their respective misery: one throwing up corruption and scandals, the other its purposeless convulsions and its inertia.49


            To understand the point of Baudrillard’s remarks one should take them in the context of his position on the global and the universal. Human rights (the “window dressing” of the West are the universal denied every day in the advance of the global (markets). Cultural travellers like Sontag argue that one must do something – “If I went back it would be to pitch in and do something”50 – but for Baudrillard this is an absurd logic.51 Baudrillard has read his Sontag and rightly points out that she “confesses in her diaries that the Bosnians do not really believe in the suffering which surrounds them. They end up finding the whole situation unreal, senseless and unexplainable”.52 And we must acknowledge that beyond this, in Sontag’s writing on her expeditions to Sarajevo, there is something of the reality junkie, a tourist of the real that must justify her experience of it by her work there, she says: “The truth is, since I’ve started going to Sarajevo – this Winter I hope to direct The Cherry Orchard… it seems the most real place in the world.”53 There is an adventurous air of seeking to be alive against the threat of death in Sontag’s writing on her time in Sarajevo. Despite herself Sontag fits so well inside Baudrillard’s assessment that: “… the so called objective reality of their plight, which should not exist, and which we do so much deplore. This reality exists as such – it is the stark reality of action and destiny. This is why they are alive, while we are dead”.54 For Baudrillard, to take our pity to Sarajevo is not to share from our position of strength, but to meet a form of strength that asks for no pity.

            What most concerns Baudrillard is how Sontag’s trip fits into the overall strategy of the West (which of course she was also vehemently against).55 If hers were the only act of “solidarity” with Sarajevo it is unlikely Baudrillard would have even noticed. However, Sontag’s trip to Sarajevo becomes lost in the overall effort to “feel solidarity” with Sarajevo in the West (exemplified in the aforementioned television show leading him to his position). Rather than troops (the West’s zero deaths policy) the French send the pity and commiseration of the West to Sarajevo and for their part the Sarajevans reject it.56 As such, Baudrillard feels that Sontag’s effort only serves to feed the demand for something “useful as a referent within the theatre of Western values, including ‘solidarity’”. For Baudrillard, Sontag’s trip to Sarajevo unwittingly plays a mere intellectual handmaiden to “Western Subserbience” as he titled his next piece in Liberation on the matter.57

            For Baudrillard, intellectuals like Sontag play into the hands of a system suffering from a downfall of its own values. If we use the suffering of the world to replenish our values then it is the sufferers whom we are using – those who do not directly exploit the exploited thus do so by proxy – this is Baudrillard’s problem with Sontag and the others (Bernard Levy, Joan Baez) traveling to Sarajevo (whatever the stated or believed purpose). Baudrillard does not want us to use Sarajevo’s suffering to replenish our pond of values, he wants us to look at it as the scene of the transparency of evil. As such, the events in Sarajevo expose “bogus Europe, vanishing Europe, Europe that has been squandered in the most hypocritical of dealings, this Europe exposed in Sarajevo”.58 Sontag of course would mostly if not entirely agree, but the matter is worse for Baudrillard. The Serbs who are carrying out the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, subcontractors of white Europe:  …are the apex of the kind of Europe in the making; because the ‘real’ Europe that is being made is a white Europe, a Europe ‘made’ white, integrated and cleansed, in the moral sense, in the economic sense, and in the ethnic sense”.59

            Certainly Sontag was hurt by Baudrillard’s article but one would expect a person of her intelligence to overcome the immediate personal feelings and understand at the very least, that he was defending a serious intellectual position. As such, we must challenge the genuineness of Sontag’s criticism of Baudrillard as acting in either “conscious bad faith” or in “shameless ignorance”.60 If we are looking for bad conscience and shameless ignorance on the part of an author, Baudrillard’s “No Reprieve for Sarajevo” is not a good place to start. Alternately, if we are looking for bad faith and ignorance, we could also do worse than to begin with Sontag’s anti-intellectual replies to Baudrillard. Why did Sontag not get Baudrillard’s point? It wasn’t so far, at least in some respects, from her own position. Why did she persist (as late as 2001) on Baudrillard’s “bad conscience” and “ignorance” (seven years after he published his article in Liberation?).61  In her lack of a proper reply to Baudrillard (she continued to be content with name calling) Sontag failed to live up to her own standard for an intellectual. It is possibly the only time she allowed herself to be so directed by anger and one of the times she functioned as an operative of the anti-intellectual America she so detested.

            Baudrillard is a provocative challenger and he offers a deep one to Sontag and to all intellectuals and public figures. What is so unfortunate is that she did not accept the challenge. No one would expect her to agree with Baudrillard, but where was Sontag’s intellectual engagement with a position with which she disagreed?  In my estimation, Sontag’s failure to intellectually engage Baudrillard’s criticism is to be remembered as a sad chapter in an otherwise engaging intellectual life. Her early tantrums against Baudrillard could be easily overlooked if she had, after some time, gotten back to him in a more serious manner. Perhaps she eventually would have and I like to think so.62

            To understand why she did not wish to engage seriously with Baudrillard’s article is to understand that Sontag did not fully respect anyone arriving in her universe from outside of literature, especially anyone she understood as a postmodernist. Sontag stood for a critical modern version of art, Baudrillard is among those who, while no proponent of postmodernism, have challenged such world views as Sontag’s quite literally to their foundations.63 As Sontag told Evans Chan in 2001, there are thoughts she did not wish to think (Chan has asked her: Did you ever call Baudrillard a “cunning nihilist”?)

Sontag: I doubt it. I don’t think I would call him nihilistic. I think he’s ignorant and cynical. And he definitely has opinions about intellectuals. There are intellectuals and intellectuals. The majority of them are conformists. But some are brave, very brave. And what are intellectuals doing with postmodernism? How people move these terms around instead of dealing with the concrete reality! I’m for complexity and the respect for reality. I don’t want to think anything theoretically in that sense.64


            The depth and breadth of Baudrillard’s universe, having reached escape velocity from the West, is unthinkable for even a leading American intellectual such as Sontag – it represents a kind of intellectual engagement she can only consider as a danger and a threat to art’s nobility and its ability to transform life. This is the nerve Baudrillard’s article in Liberation pinches. She cannot, given her commitments to art, modernism, and literature, take Baudrillard’s analysis as anything but a work of destabilization of the very ground on which she stands. A good many American intellectuals do not understand Baudrillard but this aspect of Sontag’s “not getting” Baudrillard was Sontag the “citizen of literature” and opponent of postmodernism who refused to engage with Baudrillard. Sontag will be fondly remembered, and rightly so, for her many courageous stands. However, the lack of depth and breadth of her anti-intellectual response to Baudrillard or to anything she defined as “postmodern” will not be among them.65 Is it not breadth and depth that most characterize the intellectual?66

            Ultimately what separates Sontag’s intellectual analysis of events from Baudrillard’s is her affection for the real versus his affection for the symbolic. Here Sontag’s patriotism becomes more of an issue than in her rejection of Baudrillard on postmodern grounds. Baudrillard saw 9/11 as a symbolic attack (on global power) as he views the photographs emerging from Abu Ghraib as the irony of America perishing by the image it so relies upon for global domination.67 Sontag’s criticism of 9/11 does not focus on the symbolism of the event , but is rather, a demand for better (more honest) leadership. Her New York Times piece on Abu Ghraib is a as much a polemic against Bush and Rumsfeld as it is an interesting assessment of the role of images of torture pornography in American culture. Perhaps Sontag could never bring herself to take Baudrillard seriously on Sarajevo because he is an operative of the symbolic – a realm she rejects for the real.68 In her interview with Evans Chan in 2001 she summed up the difference between herself and Baudrillard on her time in Sarajevo: “This is not ‘symbolic.’ This is real”.69

            It seems clear that Sontag would rather die than admit Baudrillard was right about anything and perhaps it was her best reason for doing so. To accept that the world has taken a Baudrillardian turn into the violence of the virtual, the digital, and integrated reality of the hyperreal, was more than she could allow – even while she lived it with the media in Sarajevo.70 The thought that Baudrillard’s analysis of her trip to Sarajevo was anything more than personal, or postmodern nonsense, remained outside of the boundaries of what she allowed herself to think.

            By the time we reach Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) or the New York Times piece on Abu Ghraib, Sontag’s force is reduced to that of enunciating principled cliché and moral platitudes. One feels a sadness for her writing as it neared the end as its author emerges as a creature living past her time. We are left to imagine what taking Baudrillard’s challenge seriously would have meant for Sontag’s later writing: How much more engaged and engaging her final works might have been – how much stronger her reply to 9/11 and Abu Ghraib might have been than its eventual patriotic conformity in supporting America’s war in Afghanistan.

VI. The Final Elsewhere

            Despite (and perhaps in part, because of) the disappointing chapter in her life that was Baudrillard, Sontag remained a leading American intellectual as we entered the new millennium. With the disappearance of Susan Sontag literate America faces two difficult problems. The first is of course the death of an acutely talented writer who will be deeply missed.  The second problem is much worse: Susan Sontag was a leading American intellectual voice – a voice that so refused to engage Baudrillard. What does this say about the quality of intellectual life in America? Does it speak to a certain inability on the part of even the tradition of public American intellectuals who do not out of hand reject Europe? This is a question we must now leave to the Americans along with a provocation.

            Perhaps the explanation of the difference between Sontag and Baudrillard (or between Chomsky and Baudrillard or Paglia and Baudrillard), boils down to “anger” as a nearly instinctual response among many Americans. Intellectuals on the right and left in America show a far too common propensity to react to Baudrillard’s provocation with anger. It is this anger which satisfies Chomsky’s lack of desire to understand Baudrillard or most contemporary French thought. Paglia merely extends this rejection to anything European. For the more literate and Euro-sensitive Sontag, anything she defines as postmodern becomes a repository for her anger. Serious intellectual engagement sacrificed for wounded feelings. Jean Baudrillard: finally something Paglia, Chomsky, and Sontag can agree upon. Where then is the public American intellectual who can take Baudrillard seriously? Until s/he emerges, how can we take American intellectuals seriously? What are we to say of the nation that has stockpiled the greatest cache of deadly weapons in the history of the world and routinely produces intellectuals who respond to provocation with anger?

            Some readers, especially admirers of Baudrillard, who were themselves angered by Sontag’s references to him may not be in a mood to forgive Sontag. But anger is dissipated by irony and there are two biting ironies that should be noted. First, regardless of her feelings about “No Reprieve for Sarajevo”, as we have seen above, Sontag’s own statements about her time in Sarajevo serve to substantiate Baudrillard’s argument. Secondly, there is the further irony that her masterful book On Photography71 is now widely understood as a pioneering work of the postmodern.72  Baudrillard refers to it as something “I read with great interest” one of a “number of outstanding books” on photography. 73

            For his part, Baudrillard takes a certain pleasure in the kind of response Sontag gave to him:

Naturally, if you provoke then you must expect some counter provocation and some negative reaction. The fact that it is so virulent is really quite interesting. It shows that in a way my negativity has passed on to them, subliminally perhaps, which is what I expected. I would say there has been a hyper-reaction to my work and from that point of view I have succeeded.74

Sontag gave other American intellectuals a good deal to think about regarding “the quality of consciousness and of the knowledge”.75 Even if Sontag may not have reached escape velocity from America in the end, she came as close to doing so as any public American intellectual of her generation. From Paglia and Chomsky we expect patriotism, although cast differently than that of William F. Buckley Jr. Sontag raised expectations to a very high level. Perhaps Sontag’s last gift to American intellectuals may be the lesson of her failure to live up to her own standard of excellence and fulfil those expectations with a proper reply to Baudrillard’s challenge. With more time perhaps she would have, and it is with a full measure of sorrow that we see her off to the final elsewhere.

*  *  *

 Susan Sontag76  (1933 – 2004)

But even the generals of this war lack the basic compassion you would expect from a human being… Every lesson of the Holocaust has gone unlearned, and it leavers me drained and sad…Words fail and reason is useless…77

Gerry Coulter is founder and Editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. 78


1 Susan Sontag. “The Pornographic Imagination” (c 1967).  In Georges Bataille. Story of the Eye. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002:117-118.

2 Jean Baudrillard. “Intellectual Commitment and Political Power: An Interview With Jean Baudrillard”.  Thesis Eleven. 10/11, 1985:166-173 (Translated by interviewer Maria Shevtsova).

3 Susan Sontag in Evans Chan. “Against Postmodernism, etcetera – A Conversation with Susan Sontag” (2001):

4 UNPROFOR stands for United Nations Protection Force. UNPROFOR while knowing a genocide was taking place, cautioned against further intervention arguing that the loss of lives of UN forces would be high. The largely French UN force clearly understood the “zero deaths” policy of the Americans and was willing to exchange a large portion of the Muslim population for this “principle”.

5 It is Baudrillard’s belief that no action can now create such a rupture. See Caroline Bayard and Graham Knight. “Vivisecting the 90s: An Interview with Jean Baudrillard” in

6 Sontag was not entirely comfortable with the label “intellectual”. She wrote: “Whether I see myself as one… is beside the point. I answer if so called.” See Susan Sontag. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1997) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:294. For his part, Baudrillard is also uneasy with the use of the term to describe himself:

There is division of labour that should be respected. Even if there are any intellectuals left - and I am not sure I am one of them, even if I appear to share in such a life, appear to share a specific discourse - I do not share in that complicity of intellectuals who perceive themselves as responsible for "something", as privileged with a sort of conscience-radicalness used to be the privilege of intellectuals and now it has been moved on to another space. Subjects such as Susan Sontag cannot intervene anymore, even symbolically, but once again this is not a prognosis or diagnosis.

In some quarters, Sontag is being remembered as the “last American intellectual”. See for example: Atul Chaturvedi, “The Last American Intellectual” in The Indian Express, Sunday January 9, 2005.

There is evidence to support the claim that Sontag was the last American intellectual and has been understood as such for nearly a decade. For example, when the French literary magazine La Règle du Jeu conducted an international survey among intellectuals on their role in 1997, the only American to appear on the list was Sontag. (See also Susan Sontag. “Answers to a Questionnaire” in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:294).

7 Susan Sontag. “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” (1993) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:319.

8 Jean Baudrillard. No Reprieve for Sarajevo. Liberation. January 8, 1994. English translation available at:

Also available at

Also published as “No Pity for Sarajevo” in Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2000:45-50.

9 Baudrillard himself has refused to do television interviews for many years.

10 See Caroline Bayard and Graham Knight. “Vivisecting the 90s: An Interview with Jean Baudrillard” in

11 Jean Baudrillard. No Reprieve for Sarajevo. Liberation. January 8, 1994. English translation available at:

(See also endnote 8). One is also reminded of the section in For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign where Baudrillard refers to protestors who have been affected by a mortal dose of publicity (c 1972, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981:174).

12 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II (c1990). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996:63.

13 Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

14 Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c1992) Stanford University Press, 1994:90.

15 Susan Sontag. “On Bellocq” (1996) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:223, 226.

16 Susan Sontag. “One Hundred Years of Italian Photography” (1987) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:222. It is interesting how “postmodern” Sontag sounds in this passage and many other she wrote regarding photography. Further, in On Photography, Sontag sounds rather Baudrillardian in her claim that photography documents sequences of consumption. See also Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects. (c1968) New York: Verso, 1993.

17 Susan Sontag. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1997) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:297.

18 Susan Sontag. “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)” (1988) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:286.

19 Susan Sontag. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1997) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:296.

20 Susan Sontag. “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)” (1988) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:289, 286.

21  Susan Sontag. “Talk of the Town” in the New Yorker, September 24, 2001 (Posted to website September 17, 2001:

22 Jean Baudrillard. “The Violence of the Global” in

23 Susan Sontag. “Regarding the Torture of Others” New York Times, May 23, 2004. Posted at:

24 On learning of Sontag’s production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo Baudrillard asked: “Why not bring ‘Bouvard and Pecuchet’ to Somalia or Afghanistan?” Jean Baudrillard. No Reprieve for Sarajevo. Liberation. January 8, 1994. English translation available at: (See endnote 8).

25 See Jean Baudrillard.  America (c 1986) New York: Verso, 1988:87 where he writes:

The US is utopia achieved. We should not judge their crisis as we would judge our own, the crisis of the old European countries. Ours is a crisis of historical ideals facing up to the impossibility of their realization. Theirs is the crisis of an achieved utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence.

26 See Susan Sontag. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1997) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:294-298.

27 Ibid.:295.

28 The question was put to Chomsky by Elizabeth Sikorovsky on a Washington D.C. Student Radio show: “American Focus”. A taped segment of the interview appears early in Part 2 of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s documentary film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Necessary Illusions Films and the National Film board of Canada, 1992.

For Chomsky America’s centrality and the importance of its politically articulate population are part of the American propaganda that shape his thought:

A part of the reason why media in Canada and Belgium and so on are more open is that it just doesn’t matter as much what people think. It matters very much what the politically articulate sector of the population think and do in the United States because of its overwhelming dominance in the world. But of course that is also a reason for wanting to work here (Noam Chomksy in Achbar and Wintonick, Part 2).

29 Is Chomsky an intellectual? He seems comfortable with the term in his writing dating back to at least 1967. Chomsky may be better described as a politician without a party. His commitments to America seem too strong to speak of him as an intellectual in the sense we speak of Sontag or Baudrillard. Despite what his right-wing critics may think, snug in their cocoon of totalitarian common sense, Chomsky is among the most loyal Americans of his generation. This is not to say that Chomsky is without genuine concern for people in other places such as Cambodia, Chechnya, East Timor etc. Even here though, these people only come into focus for Chomsky in a secondary way, as he crusades for a new America, an America that will lead the world in goodness and moral rectitude. There is a little more than a comfortable measure of the anti-intellectual in Chomsky that we find in some politicians (see endnote 20).

30 Ironically, Paglia’s candidate for top (North) American intellectual is (the Canadian) Marshall McLuhan. For Paglia it is McLuhan’s “exalted mode” that appeals. Here she is rather like the corporate elites of the early 1970s who toasted McLuhan’s conception of the “global village”. See Camille Paglia. “The North American Intellectual Tradition”., March 4, 2000.

See also Jean Baudrillard. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972). St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981:202.

31 This remark by Chomsky is strikingly similar in its chauvinism to those of the American right-wing at the time of France’s refusal to participate in the illegal U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (See also: Mark Goldblatt. “French Toast”

To my knowledge the only French thinkers of his generation Chomsky appears to have read at sufficient depth are Derrida, Lacan and Foucault, and it was only Foucault he directly engaged. Robert Barsky tells us that Chomsky knows Baudrillard only through Christopher Norris’s critique of Baudrillard (See Barsky’s Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent MIT Press online:

Barsky says that Chomsky takes most French thinkers as minimally serious and that he has told Barsky that his knowledge of their work is very slight (he hasn’t read Kristeva since meeting her in the 1970s). Barksy also quotes Chomsky’s assessment of French commentary on his own work as part of “the standard infantilism of French intellectual life”.

In 2003, IJBS provided an invitation to Chomsky to participate in a dialogue with Baudrillard’s thought on the media. He declined saying: “Sorry, this is not for me”.

32 Also the position of the pop-“intellectual” and film maker Michael Moore.

33 The “common sense right” saw Sontag as an enemy of America. In a reactionary and remarkably unfair comment on learning of Sontag’s death, Roger Kimball wrote: “Few people have managed to combine naïve idealization of foreign tyranny with violent hatred of their own country to such deplorable effect. …for her only dissidence conducted against America interest counts. See Roger Kimball. Susan Sontag: An Obituary. (December 29, 2004).

See also Jean Baudrillard. “L’Europe Divine” in Liberation (May 17, 2005):

34 The America of Senator McCarthy comes to mind as does the America of Walter Whitman Rostow’s Non Communist Manifesto. Even in the American version of the future, Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek, the Federation of Planets has its head offices in San Francisco!

35 For Chomsky this is a bitter irony indeed – for here we see the intellectual’s role in the manufacture of patriotic consent. Baudrillard understands matters differently:

Having gone as far as you can does in a way put an end to the journey. The only further stage is never to go back again – to discover the ‘distance of liberation’. The further you travel the more clearly you realize that the journey (destiny) is all that matters. It has to describe an arc across the earth, espouse the curvature of the earth and attain sufficient velocity to be tempted to escape from it. Thought too must espouse the curvature of things, their inflexion, their reversibility and be tempted at any moment to escape to starry heights, for to discover at a particular moment the curvature of life is no less moving than to sense, at great altitude, the curvature of the earth. (Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories 1980 -1985. (c1987) New York: Verso, 1990:168.

36 One recalls the texts of Innis and McLuhan against the parochial understandings of the global village on the part of American commentators. See especially: Marshall McLuhan The Global Village: Transformations in World Life in the 21st Century. Oxford University Press, 1989; Harold Innis. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, l952; Arthur Kroker. Technology and the Canadian Mind. Montreal: New World Perspectives, l984.

37 The point, of course, is not to blame intellectuals like Chomsky or Sontag for being American or remaining American citizens. Indeed, as Chomsky points out, his critics who call upon him to leave America utter a logic that is totalitarian in its origins. The work that critics like Chomsky or Sontag perform is invaluable to America and the world. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge a distinct difference between leading American intellectuals and say, the unpatriotic strategy of Baudrillard.

38 With these four words Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot begins

39 Susan Sontag. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1997) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:296. (See endnote 6)

40 Ibid.

41 The Economist. “Obituary: Susan Sontag”, January 6, 2005.

42 Indeed, as she reminds us, at the time she was there putting on Godot, the other theatres put on Alcestis (about the inevitability of death and the meaning of sacrifice) Ajax (a warrior’s madness and suicide), and as self explanatory title In Agony. Susan Sontag. “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” (1993) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:302.

43 Ibid. (Again note how, in her own way, she reinforces Baudrillard’s case against the journey).

44 Ibid.: 304.

45 Ibid. 320.

46 Ibid.: 304.

47 At least one obituary referred to her as a “risk taker”. See for example: “Sontag – The Intellectual Risk Taker Died in NY” in (January 29, 2004). See also: “The risk-taker” by Gary Younge in The Guardian (January, 19, 2002).,3858,4338565-103418,00.html

48 Jean Baudrillard. “No Reprieve for Sarajevo”, Liberation, January 8, 1994. Translated by Chris Turner in Baudrillard’s Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2000.

49 Ibid.

50 Susan Sontag. “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” (1993) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:299. Sontag treads an uncomfortable terrain here given her statements in On Photography that with the advent of photography everything became merely photographable. In Sarajevo Sontag comes closer to being an example of Baudrillard’s critique than she recognizes.

51 “To do something for the sole reason that one cannot do nothing never has been a valid principle for action, nor for liberty”. Jean Baudrillard. “No Reprieve for Sarajevo”, Liberation, January 8, 1994. Translated by Chris Turner in Baudrillard’s Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2000.

52 Ibid.;  See also Susan Sontag. “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” (1993) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:299.  Indeed, as Sontag herself says: “They are genuinely astonished by the Serb atrocities, and by the starkness and sheer unfamiliarity of the lives they are now obliged to lead. ‘We’re living in the Middle Ages,’ someone said to me. ‘This is science fiction,’ another friend said.” (p. 321).

53 Ibid.

54 Jean Baudrillard. “No Reprieve for Sarajevo”, Liberation, January 8, 1994. Translated by Chris Turner in Baudrillard’s Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2000.

55 As she explains in her acount of why other foreign artists did not go to Sarajevo: “The danger can’t be the only reason for not considering a visit… I suspect the ultimate reason is a failure of identification – enforced by the buzzword ‘Muslim’”. See Susan Sontag. “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” (1993) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:307. Shortly after her death Muhidin Hamamdzic, Mayor of Sarajevo, announced that a street in the city was to be named after Sontag. See http:\\…

56 In a similar way we can say Sontag represents America sending a general to conduct a “troop” when troops we called for by Sarajevans.

57 See Jean Baudrillard. “Western Subserbience” in Liberation (July 3, 1995) also published in: Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:62-65. Translated by Chris Turner.

58 Ibid. For more on Baudrillard’s understanding of globalization as Western exportation of its lack of values see: “The Global and the Universal” in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:155-159. Translated by Chris Turner.

59 Ibid.

60 Susan Sontag. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1997) in Where the Stress Falls: Essays. London: Jonathan Cape and Random House, 2002:296.

61 Susan Sontag in Evans Chan. “Against Postmodernism, etcetera – A Conversation with Susan Sontag” (2001):

62 She did make retractions. For example, several years after her utterance that “the white race is the cancer of human history” she reconsidered saying it slandered cancer patients. See Christopher Hitchins. “Remembering an Intellectual heroine” in Slate (December 29, 2004).

63 On postmodernism, Baudrillard told Gane (and he has not varied from this position since): should ask whether postmodernism, the postmodern, has a meaning.  It doesn’t as far as I am concerned.  Its an expression, a word which people use but which explains nothing.  It’s not even a concept. It’s nothing at all.  It’s because it’s impossible to define what’s going on now, grand theories are over and done with, as Lyotard says.  That is, there is a sort of a void, a vacuum.  It’s because there is nothing really to express this that an empty term has been chosen to designate what is really empty.  (Interview with Mike Gane in Baudrillard Live. New York: Routledge, 1993:21-22.

64 Susan Sontag in Evans Chan. “Against Postmodernism, etcetera – A Conversation with Susan Sontag” (2001):

65 Sontag referred to America as the most anti-intellectual nation on earth (see endnote 38). Her brief and angry rejection of Baudrillard’s challenge is the only time of which I am aware that she contributed to the expansion of anti-intellectualism in America.

66 See John Lukacs. “The Obsolescence of the American Intellectual” Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Chronicle Review”, Volume 49, Issue 6, B7. Also available on-line at:

67 For Baudrillard’s take on September 11, 2001 see: Jean Baudrillard. The Violence of the Global

For Baudrillard’s take on the American torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib see: Jean Baudrillard. “Pornographie de la guerre” In Liberation, Wednesday May 19, 2004.:  English translation by Paul Taylor in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies Volume 2, Number 1, January 2005:

68 Susan Sontag in Evans Chan. “Against Postmodernism, etcetera – A Conversation with Susan Sontag” (2001):

69 Ibid.

70 For more on the hyperreal see Jean Baudrillard. The Violence of the Virtual and Integrated Reality in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 2, Number 2, July 2005:

71 Susan Sontag. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1977.

72 Evans Chan made this point in his interview with Sontag in 2001. Sontag replied: “Yes, I suppose so. But again I don’t think I need to use that term “postmodern”. See Evans Chan. “Against Postmodernism, etcetera – A Conversation with Susan Sontag” (2001):

73 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet (c2001), New York: Routledge, 2004:98

74 Jean Baudrillard. “’Politics of Seduction’: Interview with Suzanne Moore and Stephen Johnstone”. Marxism Today. January 1989:54.

75 See endnote 1.

76 Photo: The Indian Express. Sunday January 9, 2005:

77 Nina Zivancevic. “Pandora’s Box” in Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus. Hatred of Capitalism. New York: Semiotext(e), 2001:77, 81. Taken from her book: Inside and Out of Byzantium. New York: Semiotext(e), 1993.

78 The author expresses his gratitude to both external readers for their insightful comments, and to Paul Taylor and Evans Chan for further suggestions to the final copy.  My thanks also to Mary Ellen Donnan and Victoria West for proof reading the final copy.




©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)